It took a pandemic to put the brakes on steeplechase runner Avinash Sable's meteoric progress over the last two years.
In June 2018, Sable, an army man from the Beed district in Maharstahra, recorded a timing of 8:49.25 in the 3000m steeplechase event at the Inter-State Championships in Guwahati. But it took him just two months to bring the timing down to 8:29.80 " becoming the first Indian to do a sub-8:30.
It was at the National Open Athletics Championships in Bhuvneshwar where Sable managed the feat, breaking the 37-yeard-old national record. The earlier record was held by Gopal Saini, who had clocked 8:30.88 in the Asian athletics championships in 1981.
The progress continued from there on as he broke the national record again at the Federation Cup in March 2019, clocking 8:28.94 and qualifying for the World Championships.
At the Worlds, Sable went onto break the national record twice. First in the heats with a timing of 8:25.33 and then in the finals as he finished 13th, clocking 8:21.27. In the process, Sable became the first Indian to qualify for the Olympics in the event since Gurzar Singh in 1952.
The focus was now completely on drastically improving upon the national record as the 2020 Tokyo Olympics inched closer. Sable knew his task was cut out. The bronze medal winner at the Worlds, Soufiane El Bakkali, clocked 8:03.76. The Indian middle-distance runner had to improve his national record by at least 18-20 seconds to hope for a medal at the mega event in Tokyo.
His planned training trip for the US in November was cancelled due to sub-zero conditions in the state. Sable later went to Morocco to train under Rizqi Boubker despite some bureaucratic issues. After returning, he trained in Patiala before moving to Ooty in March this year for high-altitude training under coach Amrish Kumar.
The 26-year-old felt he was primed for a good show at the Olympics. However, he was made to wait longer as the COVID-19 pandemic engulfed the world, forcing the organisers to postpone the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to the next year.
"When I first heard about the postponement of Tokyo Olympics, I felt bad as I was ready for it," Sable tells Firstpost.
However, the army personnel who has served at the Siachen glacier and the India-Pakistan border in Rajasthan, soon realised that the postponement was a golden opportunity for him to improve his skills and physical fitness.
"After I qualified, there was less time on hand (to improve my performance) for Olympics but since the event has got postponed, I am using it to improve the basics like endurance, speed, and technique. I have made a lot of improvements on all the fronts.
"My work has revolved around all the aspects, whether it's improving my endurance with long-distance running or enhancing my speed. Also for strength, training has been improved."
Sable is now confident that he can better his national record but he regrets not having the opportunity to participate in more competitions, which would help him assess the work he has done in training and progress further.
"I can do much better than before on the track now as my fitness has improved quite a lot. I feel I can attain the time target that I have set for myself."
"I have been making good progress in the training and I feel confident but I can only judge my progress after taking part in competitions," regrets Sable.
In that respect, the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM) 2020 which will be taking place on 29 November has come as a welcome respite for the athlete. While marathon running was not on his immediate radar, the event gives him an opportunity to rub his shoulders against international runners.
"Airtel Delhi Half Marathon is going to be a huge help. I have not participated in a competition for over a year so the marathon would help me assess my progress. I just hope I get to participate in more races," says Sable.
The ADHM would pit Sable against Indian Elite Men's category defending champion Srinu Bugatha and would also see renowned racers like Andamlak Belihu, Abraham Cheroben, and Guye Adola running in the marathon. Keeping the COVID-19 concerns in the mind, the race is being held inside a bio-secure zone.
Talking about the Olympics, Sable says the daunting challenge in front of him doesn't intimidate him as he aims for another head-turning performance.
I won't be going to the Olympics to just participate, I would be going there in the hope of a medal. I have got a lot of time and have trained hard," says a confident Sable.